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Perks, Clubs and Associations

In May 1936, Mrs Dubarry was awarded a grant of ?10 towards the cost of her daughter’s illness.[1] Like all staff she was eligible to apply to the BBC’s Benevolent Fund for financial help in situations of ill health, bereavement and other personal matters. The Fund was characteristic of Reith’s strong belief in welfarism, a strategy increasingly popular within large companies in the interwar years who used the ‘extras’ of clubs, pensions, subsidised catering and so on, to encourage loyalty amongst employees and to undermine potential trade union activity.[2] In 1925, the BBC had established a Provident Fund for staff which, in February 1933, was incorporated into the London Life Pension Scheme. Membership of the scheme was compulsory for all non-manual staff and optional for manual staff, the BBC matching the equivalent five per cent of salary (or optional seven and a half per cent) that was contributed. At a time when paid holidays were largely in the gift of the employer, the BBC offered a generous allowance. As early as 1925, all office-based staff who had been with the Company for more than nine months were entitled to three weeks’ annual leave, house staff to two weeks and charwomen to a week.[3] Hours of work were also limited to eight hours a day and in 1936, half-day working on Saturdays was abandoned.[4] Long-service was also rewarded with a ten-year bonus and, for some senior employees, what was known as Grace Leave. This was three months off with a financial grant for ‘creatives’ who used the time to travel, to regenerate and to get fresh ideas. In addition, while the sick leave allowance was officially four weeks a year, staff with good service who were ill for longer periods were treated more kindly, with individual cases considered on merit, something which benefitted both Mary Somerville and Mary Adams.[5]

The BBC Club, introduced by Reith in 1925, was quickly embraced by staff. Ruth Cockerton, who joined as a shorthand typist in 1924 remembered Studio No.1 being used for ‘Miss Osborne’s physical drill class’ and how swimming galas were held at the Lambeth Baths ‘with Captain Peter Eckersley pirouetting on the top board’.[6] From simplistic beginnings, the Club was expanded in 1929 to embrace a purpose- built sports ground and Club House with extensive facilities at Motspur Park in Surrey, ‘so complete in every respect—from plunge bath to parquet floor’.[7] The BBC Club Bulletin, first published in January 1930, listed not only a wide range of sporting activities but also an Amateur Dramatics Society and a Debating Society. By June 1930, 400 of the 700 Head Office staff were club members.[8] Elise Sprott is a prime example of a Club enthusiast. Not only was she Secretary to the Hockey Club and a keen member of the Motoring Club but she also sat on the Pavilion and Grounds Committee, where she had responsibility for catering. In December 1930, for example, ‘indefatigable as always’ she was praised for the Supper and Dance for the Rugby Football Club she had prepared.[9] [10] Sprott also acted in staff plays, on one occasion, in 1936, alongside Reith in The Sport of Kings (she was ‘Cook’; he was the butler ‘Bates’). 1 18 The BBC Club promoted ‘healthy interdepartmental and individual competition’ and senior management were encouraged to take part. 1 19 In August 1930, Hilda Matheson, President of the Hockey Section, presented the winners with a Silver Challenge Cup while in November 1930 the BBC Governor Lady Snowden attended a Club Dance. 1 20 Separate Clubs were also established at all the BBC’s Regional offices and at some Transmission stations.

Britain in the 1930s witnessed an explosion of interest in health and outdoor pursuits with organisations such as the Youth Hostel Association and the Women’s League of Health and Beauty attracting large memberships.[8] [12] [13] The BBC, like many other large companies and organisations, tapped into this passion for sports with its profusion of sports clubs. While many were single-sex, women were ranked alongside men in motoring, rifle shooting and table-tennis and played alongside men in chess and bridge. The Midland Region even developed a Mixed Hockey team. 1 [10] BBC teams also played outside fixtures, with the Ladies Netball Club competing against, for instance, Lloyds Bank, Southern Railway and WH Smith, while the Ladies Hockey Team took on Battersea Polytechnic and the Ministry of Labour. There was also a philanthropic side to the BBC Club which, in 1935, took the decision to fund ‘BBC House’, a social centre in Gateshead for the unemployed.[15]

When Broadcasting House opened in May 1932, Reith assembled the 700 Head Office staff in the Concert Hall where he reiterated that one of his main purposes was ‘the health and happiness of each one of you’.[16] Reith was adamant that, because conditions of service at the BBC were considered to be good, employees did not want or need a staff association. The issue of a staff association had first been raised by the BBC governor Ethel Snowden in 1930.[17] Reith, however, with the backing of his senior managers, provided ample evidence that staff were content and did not require representation.[18] This view was not unfounded; staff were fiercely loyal to both Reith and to the BBC. In March 1934, for example, during a particularly ugly press campaign that claimed mass staff discontent, Lilian Taylor (now an Accounts Clerk) organised a petition expressing disgust at the allegations and asserting commitment to the BBC. It gathered 800 signatures, those of almost half the staff.[19] The issue of a staff association was discussed by the Ullswater Committee which met for many months in 1936 to consider the BBC’s Charter renewal. Its final Report recommended that one should be instituted, if staff wished it.[20] [21] A ballot held in November 1938 showed 77 per cent of staff in favour of establishing a Joint Council; however, the complexity of the negotiations meant that the first meeting did not take place until April 1941.

Although no staff association existed prior to the Second World War, BBC employees were not barred from joining unions. 1 29 A few areas were highly unionised; for example, many engineers were members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union while newsroom workers might belong to the National Union of Journalists, both male-dominated areas of work.[22] In general, though, unionisation within the Corporation was low and almost non-existent for women staff. Lambert believed this was because those who worked at the BBC in the 1920s and 30s were ‘too middle-class to welcome trade-union notions’. 1 [23] However, being middle-class did not preclude women from joining unions; high numbers of women teachers and civil servants were unionised at this time.[24] Rather, the lack of unionisation amongst professional women at the BBC appears to be because there were no key issues, such as enshrined unequal pay or the compulsion to resign on marriage, about which senior women staff felt impassioned enough to combine.[25] Additionally, most of the BBC’s waged staff were office workers, a group notoriously difficult to unionise because they mostly worked in small and disparate establishments. In 1937, the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries launched a fierce recruitment drive at the BBC with little success, although a handful of women staff were known to be members.[26]

  • [1] BBC/WAC:R3/3/11: Control Board Minutes, 26 May 1936.
  • [2] See, for example, Arthur J. Mclvor (2001) A History of Work in Britain, 1880—1950(Basingstoke: Palgrave) pp. 98-9.
  • [3] The first Holidays with Pay Act was passed in 1938. BBC/WAC:R49/323/1: StaffPolicy: Annual Leave.
  • [4] In summer, working hours were 9.30-5.30, in winter 9.30-6.00.
  • [5] The practice was commented on in an article on Welfare Arrangements at the BBC inNursing Times, 28 April 1934.
  • [6] Ariel, June 1938.
  • [7] BBC Club Bulletin, January 1930. Motspur Park opened in June 1929.
  • [8] The Heterodyne, June 1930.
  • [9] BBC Club Bulletin, December 1930.
  • [10] Ariel, June 1936.
  • [11] The Heterodyne, June 1930.
  • [12] The Heterodyne, August 1930, November 1930.
  • [13] Juliet Gardiner (2010) The Thirties: An Intimate History (London: Harper Press)pp. 602-3, 522-3. The BBC branch of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty took partin the 1932 Hyde Park and Albert Hall demonstrations. Heterodyne, April-June 1932.
  • [14] Ariel, June 1936.
  • [15] See for example Ariel, June 1936.
  • [16] Quoted in Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, p. 465.
  • [17] BBC/WAC:R/1/1: Board of Governors, 4 May 1930.
  • [18] BBC/WAC:R1/66/2: Board of Governors, Proposed Staff Association Reports, 28May 1930.
  • [19] Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, pp. 454-6.
  • [20] p0r a detailed discussion on the Ullswater Committee see Briggs, The Golden Age ofWireless, pp. 476-513.
  • [21] At the John Lewis Partnership staff were not prevented from joining trade unions butJohn Spedan Lewis believed that the conditions of service offered made this unnecessary.Judy Faraday (2009) ‘A Kind of Superior Hobby: Women Managers in the John LewisPartnership 1918-1950’ (Unpublished MPhil dissertation: University of Wolverhampton)pp. 105-6.
  • [22] BBC/WAC:R49/850: Trades Unions: Amalgamated Engineering Union; R49/871:Trades Unions, National Union of Journalists.
  • [23] Lambert, Ariel and All his Quality, p. 159. Female membership of trade unionsremained low in the interwar year, never reaching more than 19 per cent of total membership. Lewis, Women in England, p. 169.
  • [24] See Alison Oram (1996) Women Teachers and Feminist Politics 1900—1939 (Manchester:Manchester University Press); Helen Glew (2009) ‘Women’s Employment in the GeneralPost Office, 1914—1939’ (Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London).
  • [25] in 1921, 80 per cent of female post office workers were members of the Association ofPost Office Women Clerks. Glew, ‘Women’s Employment in the GPO’, p. 192. In 1929, 83per cent of women teachers were members of the NUT. Oram, Women Teachers, p. 226.
  • [26] BBC/WAC:R49/857: Trade Unions: Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries.
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